Mimi Haddad: Is God Male?

From CBE’s Arise newsletter, by Mimi Haddad.

For the first time in history, significantly fewer women in North America are serving or participating in the life of the church, according to the George Barna Group—considered the leading research organization studying faith and culture. Several weeks after Barna released their 20-year study, two prominent pastor’s conferences focused on the need for male-authority. At one of these conferences, male-leadership was viewed as inseparable from the God-given “masculine feel” of Christianity. After all, Jesus was male, and Scripture reveals God as “king not queen, father not mother.”

But, let’s not let these facts blind us to the truth. Misconstrued facts take us not closer, but further from the truth. This risk is ever-present when focusing on one set of facts to the exclusion of all the others. And, facts, as stated in the Bible, require more than simply reading the words. To gain the fullest understanding of Scripture, facts should be read in light of the whole text as well as in their historic and cultural context. Does the gendered language of Scripture suggest that maleness is inseparable from God’s being, and that males should be, therefore, in ultimate positions of leadership?

Though Jesus called God “Father,” it was understood in Jesus’ day that it was fathers who passed on inheritance, protection and identity to children, as Marianne Meye Thompson observes in The Promise of the Father. Christ also called God Abba, or “daddy,” as a way of expressing not only intimacy and trust, but also birthright. Like all language used for God, “Father” and Abba help us understand a spiritual or eternal principle: that just as Christ is God’s child, in Christ we, too, are heirs of God’s kingdom, a point Paul emphasizes in Galatians 3:27-29:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

In as much as we are in Christ, we, too, are sons and daughters of Abraham and therefore heirs of God. This is the case regardless of gender, ethnicity or class specifically because it was not Christ’s gender, ethnicity or class, but Christ’s humanity, that makes him a sacrifice to all people.

Scripture also uses feminine metaphors to emphasize specific qualities of God. Last week, we considered the feminine language the early church used to understand God. Today we turn to the metaphors of Scripture, including gendered metaphors. Scripture speaks of God using a variety of images like “rock, fortress, and shield” (Deut. 32:18, Ps. 18:2); “light” (Ps. 27:1); “moth” and “rot” (Hos. 5:12); “lion, leopard and bear” (Hos. 13:6-8); “shade” (Ps. 121:5); and “shepherd” (Isa. 40:11).

Each metaphor has distinct “is” and “is not” qualities. For example, God’s love is fiercely protective like a mother bear. Yet, God is not like a mother bear in all ways. God is not a mammal. Similarly, Scripture describes God as a “mother bird” (Ruth 2:12, Ps. 17:8, Matt. 23:37), protecting and sheltering her young. Of course, God is not a mother bird. Rather, God’s nature is motherly, nurturing, and fiercely protective (Hos. 13:8). God is also imaged as a human mother (Isa. 46: 3-4, Job 38: 29, Hos. 11:3-4) and as a midwife (Ps. 22:9), because we are born of God as Christians and God continues to love and instruct us with a motherly protection throughout our lives.

Jesus also described God in feminine images—as a woman baking bread (Luke 13:20–21) or as a woman sweeping the floor (Luke 15:8-9)—not to impart gender as an attribute of God’s being or to suggest that females are more god-like than males. Rather, these metaphors illustrate the momentum of God’s kingdom and God’s tenacity on our behalf. These metaphors, too, have “is” and “is not” qualities.

Interestingly, however, the Holy Spirit in Hebrew is a feminine noun and is frequently associated with the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). For this reason, the Syriac church refers to the Holy Spirit as “mother.” What is more, the root of the word El Shaddai can also mean “breast” which emphasizes God’s nurturance and sustenance (Gen. 17:1, 28:3, 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25).

Yet, even these examples are not sufficient reason to ascribe gender onto God, because gender is part of the created world. God is spirit (John 4:24) and Scripture warns against creating God in earthly images (Ex. 20:4). Hosea 11:9 reads, “I am God, and not a human being.” “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any bird that flies in the air . . .” (Deut. 4:15–17). Moreover, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14)—a name without gender.

God is self-revealed in terms we can understand through our own experiences, using metaphors which are, at times, feminine. We should not, however, make these metaphors—these implicit comparisons—absolutes. When we do, we are making God in our image, whether male or female. God is not limited by gender because God is Spirit. It is idolatry to make God male or female. God is no more female or goddess than God is male, and males have no priority over women in the New Covenant community because of gender (Gal 3:27-29).God is beyond gender, and leadership is not gender-bound.

Mimi Haddad
President

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • andrew.peter

    Women and men are both equally valuable in God’s sight, yet there are different roles for each. Men and women together have attributes of God, yet are divided amongst them. Men generally have the strength and leadership characteristics while women have the nurture and compassion characteristics. Both are documented characteristics of God, but both equally separated between men and women. That is why when the two come together as one flesh reflect God’s glory.
    Beware of making God appear to be too transcendent. He has made Himself known to us.

    Two questions that I’ll raise in light of this article:
    1. Why is the idea of women ruling over Israel in Is. 3:12 considered a bad thing by God?
    2. What of Paul’s issue with women in authority. 1 Tim 2:12. Is this to be considered an uninspired “Paul’s Opinion”, and taken with a grain of salt? That would effectively render this verse useless for fit for removal from scripture. “Who cares about his opinion if it’s not God’s Word.”

  • Percival

    Excellent, Mimi Haddad. Images communicate but do not define. We (both male and female) are made in God’s image. We are not to make God into our male or female image.

  • Sue

    The scriptures clearly attribute strength to women. The Hebrew word “chayil” is translated into English as “mighty” when refering to men, and “virtuous” when refering to women. In Hebrew both men and women are to be mighty and strong. There is no difference. Also men are to be nurturing and compassionate. No difference there either.

  • Ron

    Thank you, Mimi Haddad. I believe that one day this will all seem “normal” and at that time people will wonder how this could have ever been an issue in the early part of the 21st century. Until then, however, you do us all a good service by articulating the truth.

  • Scott Courey

    All humans are created to display the glory of God. All humans who deny this call distort their identity. Every human possesses their own unique way of either magnifying or demeaning the glory of God. When it comes to human diversity the question is never fundamentally, “what is this person’s job description”, but far more, “how is God glory displayed uniquely in this person’s life”? When we miss the point of diversity (unique glory-reflectors) our discussions are always wrongly aimed. Our goal should be to grow in both humility and awe of how God glorifies himself in and through people different that us, be it on the basis of gender, race, culture, personality, etc. We lack humility and awe regarding diversity, that is our problem. We have very little idea of how God’s glory is being revealed in and through each other. If we were humbled and awed by this miracle then we’d sound far more like we were sharing stories of discovered treasures in the lives of those so gloriously different than our own. But we’ apparently rather prescribe and predict it all.

  • Robert A

    While it is obvious that God’s inherently does have a physical gender (given the divine simplicity, or lack of physical form) it does seem obvious that the biblical expression/understanding of God is exclusively masculine. While there are certainly traits which can be shared by both genders, God’s chooses to express Himself in the masculine sense.

  • P.

    We need to ask why did God usually chose to express himself in the masculine sense. I believe it was because of the patriarchical culture of the time and not from some extra holiness around masculinity. Now, there were times when the Bible does refer to God with feminine imagery. A Google search will show many examples.

  • Jasen Lutz

    @ Andrew Peter

    I can appreciate how you have come to arrive at you position believing that Men and Women have equal but complimentary roles but I would like to suggest to you that the Galatians 3:27-29 passage does not allow for this kind of interpretation. In fact, the whole point of the book of Galatians is to declare that all who are in Christ are equal in both value and in function. Jews and Gentiles were not just equally valuable to God, they functioned equally by putting an end to the rules that kept them functioning in separate roles. When you think about it there is no way we would tolerate a complementarian view of any other categories Paul mentions. We wouldn’t dare argue that Jews and Greeks are equal in value to the Father but the Jews must sit at the kosher table and Greeks at another table eating pork chops. That would contradict the entire occasion of Paul’s letter. Furthermore, we would never suggest that Slaves and Masters are equal in value to God but the Masters sit at the nice table and the Slaves will do all of the serving of the food and when the work is done the slaves can eat the leftovers in the kitchen.

    The purpose of the book of Galatians is clear and firmly stated in 3:27-29 that ALL who are in Christ, including Men and Women, are equal not only in their value but in their function as well. We even see Jesus practice this principle in Luke 10:38-42. Martha is functioning in her role as a woman by preparing for her guests but Mary is functioning in an exclusively male role of siting at the Rabbi’s feet and learning. Jesus affirms Mary and and tells Martha to follow her example. I think Christians ought to continue to do the same.

  • Reed

    If Haddad wants to wage the gender war by comparing the amount of Scripture that shows God as ‘male’ or God as ‘female’ she will lose that war. The fact is that God is portrayed the vast majority of the time in masculine ways, and she ultimately loses because Jesus is a man. Now and in the age to come we worship a man (and yet so much more than a man). Does that mean egalitarianism is wrong? No, but that means her argument is bad and doomed to failure.

    Haddad implies that the reduction of female involvement in the church is related to the view of complementarianism. Looking at the whole 2000 years of church history, one should actually adopt the contrary position. The reduction in female involvement in the church comes at the time when ‘egalitarianism’ has come into existence. Correlation is not causation, but if one wants to argue that way, then Haddad again loses the argument.

  • Jonathan

    I ask this every time I notice the “complementarian” issue come up, in hopes that some folks who hold to that position will answer, but so far no luck.

    If complementarianism means (and it does) that there are certain roles which exclusively belong to men and which are forbidden to women (regardless of interest or gifting), what are the roles which exclusively belong to women and are forbidden to men (regardless of interest or gifting)?

    It seems to me that if the roles of men and women in complementarianism are actually complimentary (as opposed to the roles of men being a superset of the roles of women), there should be an answer to that question.

    And, no, I don’t consider “giving birth” and “breast-feeding” to be answers, since those cases are a matter of physical impossibility for men.

  • Percival

    Jonathan 8:27,
    My wife doesn’t let me wrap Christmas presents. Does that count?

  • Cal

    I don’t understand why God taking male characteristics means complimentarian? I know God has no gender but describes Himself as He and that the Messiah was a man. It doesn’t make the value or function of women any less and both are equal (despite differences in the sexes in terms of general personality, not roles).

    Lyrics from a song:
    God of all gods, a father to each holy one
    God of all gods, a father to each lowly one
    God of all gods, like a mother to the orphaned ones
    God of all gods, Holy other to the broken half of me

    I think a lot of this discussion is rather silly if we’re exhibiting agape to one another.

  • http://spirit-cry.com/ Cameron

    I don’t see too many places where God describes Godself as a male. I see many times where human authors use masculine language to describe God.

    It also seems to me that none of the qualities of strength, leadership, compassion and nurture exclude any of the others.

  • Meri

    Good point, Cameron. Proponents of the masculine God keep referring to the primary use of male language in reference to God. But doesn’t language frequently require an either/or choice of masculine/feminine? And isn’t masculine often the generic genderless choice? “Mankind” means all people, both male and female.

    The authority of man over woman goes back to the curse of Genesis 3:16 “thy desire shall be for thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” Woman was an equal helpmate until this point, and don’t forget it was a CURSE that placed man above woman in social norms and language reflects this. Nowhere in scripture does it say God is male; but we associate power and authority more often in male roles. Certainly the ancients did.

    Language has its limits – if it uses gender syntax and we have an abundance of male metaphors for roles of authority, power, strength, etc., then we are going to end up with predominantly male images of God. But those are personifications of God, not the real deal — again, God himself (HIMself being no more or less accurate than HERself) is neither male nor female. (Or maybe he is both, since we are both made in his image. )

  • phil_style

    Christ also called God Abba, or “daddy,”

    The “abba = daddy” thing is not true though is it?
    I thought this had been debunked a long time ago…or am I mistaken…

  • http://leadme.org Cal

    Phil:

    You’re right. It wasn’t a sentimental term, it simply meant Father. Now, the shocking thing was that Jesus called YHWH His father, which meant all sorts of other things.

  • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

    For His part, Christ our God is definitely a man. ;)

    THE man, the only man, in a sense.

  • http://pambg.blogspot.com PamBG

    The Son of God came to serve rather than to be served.

    Complementarianism Epic Fail One: The failure to recognize that hierarchical power is a manifestation of human sinful nature and (Roman) Empire rather than Kingdom of God.

    Complementarianism Epic Fail Two: Promoting hierarchical power and therefore effectively preaching that the first shall be first and the last shall be last.

    In other words, a message that is 180 degrees opposite from what Jesus preached.

    Never mind counting male and female images of God in the bible. The male/female obsession is simply a smoke-screen for self-idolatry and wanting to be equal to or better than God.

  • http://wordshalfheard.blogspot.com Carol Kuniholm

    It’s so sad that a thoughtful discussion of scripture would be described as waging gender war, with winners and losers. Somehow that misses the point.

    And while I’m not sure that Haddad does, in fact, imply “that the reduction of female involvement in the church is related to the view of complementarianism,” I wonder how many women have left the church because they are so very tired of being told, yet again, that while we were all made in the image of God, men are somehow more so than the rest of us. Or that, while we are all called to be like Christ, maybe women shouldn’t take that too seriously.

    I appreciate the reminder that God is far greater than our understanding of gender, and the Christian faith sets us free from restrictive assumptions about our “masculine” or “feminine” roles.

  • Andrew.peter

    @Jason Lutz
    Thanks for your reply, but you have ignored my questions. Please answer them, because I’m interested in how you reconcile the above philosophy with clear scripture.
    You make a very compelling argument from Galatians 3:27-29, but how do you reconcile what you’ve stated with Ephesians 5:22-33, regarding a marriage setting. Here Paul is relating the image of Christ as the head of the church to that of marriage. It’s obvioiusly the best analogy to show us what marriage should be like.
    Outside of marriage, I see no differences of “value” between men and women. I would disagree with you on your interpretation Jesus’s rebuking of Martha. If you relate this with the instance of Mary anointing Jesus (John 12:3), and Jesus’s reply about His disciples not fasting (Matt 9:14), then you can reasonably argue that Jesus was rebuking her because her priorities were wrong. Which was more important at that time, to serve Jesus in the short time He was alive or learn from Him during that time?
    I’m interested in anyone’s remarks regarding my questions and comments.

  • Andrew.peter

    On the topic of God being genderless:
    If this were so, and God wanted to reveal this to mankind, wouldn’t this be explained by Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33, when he is explaining the unique relationship between men and women within the institution of marriage?
    Instead Paul draws an comparison with the relationship of Christ and the Church, His Bride.

    But really there is nothing heretical about this article as long as you hold to a theology that treats the Bible as “Living” and not definitive. With a “living” viewpoint then all my arguments are null and void, so happy revelling.


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